Readers’ wildlife photos

December 30, 2022 • 8:15 am

Today we have some exotic travel photography by reader Stephen Warren. His notes are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:

Some nature pics from deep in the Mauritanian desert, earlier this month.

We took 11 camels carrying water, tents, mattresses, and food including (look away now if you are squeamish) a live goat. Everyone walked, including the chameliers (camel drivers), and it was good hard exercise in the dunes. Here the caravan sets off:

Camp pitched on day 1. This is the main tent, the sleeping quarters for the guide, cook and 4 chameliers. The camels (two in the background) are free to roam, to feed, but are hobbled and don’t wander far from the camp:

Here you see Limam, one of the chameliers. In the background you see the `sand sea’, the high dunes up to 40 or 50m high. Forget fancy desert boots. The chameliers are the experts and they wear cheap flipflops. The idiot intrepid adventurers instead spent a great deal of time emptying sand from their shoes and socks:

A closeup of the same large dune. This is the leeward side, looking N, the persistent wind direction being E to W. So on the leeward side the blown sand falls at the critical slope, set by the inter-grain coefficient of friction (the slope is gentler on the windward side). The dunes are about 1km across and repeat in waves. The greenery, ’sbot’, is the camels preferred food, and was abundant for our trip due to unusually heavy rain in October. The tree is an acacia:

The wind creates beautiful patterns in the sand:

. . . which are then marked by tracks from a variety of wildlife including fox, hare, gerbil, snake, lizard, scorpion, and beetle. We saw all of these creatures except gerbil and snake, but we did see their tracks. Here is a wonderful array of tracks, dominated by scarab beetles:

The next one is from a gerbil. I’m guessing that because they jump, the rear paws are the two separate  paws, and the front (leading in landing) paws are the two together, but I didn’t see it in action:

Lizard prints: running on the left, then stopping, turning and walking on the right, trailing its tail:

Here are the intrepid explorers in a scene reminiscent of Tintin in The Crab with the Golden Claws:

. . . complete with camel bones (if you know the book):

Finally, treasures found in the desert. The region was populated by humans until about 6000y ago and there is debris from this civilisation everywhere to be found. On the left, firstly 3 arrow heads, and below that two scrapers, perhaps for separating hide from flesh. The ends are filed to a sharp edge. The material looks like a type of chert.Top right is a small meteorite I found, a chondrite. The desert is a great place to look for meteorites. Below that are what appear to be two fossilised eggs that we bought from a chamelier – any ideas, readers? They are about 5cm long and are perhaps from a small dinosaur. I have sent a photo to the Natural History Museum in London asking for help in identification. The bottom white item is a piece of ostrich egg shell. This is a common find in the region suggesting that ostriches were farmed in those times:

Reader’s wildlife photos (and videos)

December 17, 2022 • 8:15 am

Today we have photos of a swell trip taken by Robert Lang, physicist and origami master. (I believe it was this trip, sponsored by New Scientist and Steppes Travel, and featuring Richard Dawkins as lecturer) Robert’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Hawaii Wildlife

We spent a week sailing around the Hawaiian islands. We saw quite a few birds, both endemic and introduced, but I didn’t get many good pictures of the endemics; most of them were too skittish and/or stayed in heavy leaf cover. But I did get this Saffron Finch (Sicalis flaveola), which is an introduced species, but was too pretty to pass up.

We also did some kayaking along sea cliffs. I loved the brilliance of this Red Pencil Urchin (Heterocentrotus mamillatus), which was just above the waterline.

At one point, the ship we were on spotted a pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuate). As we revved up the engine, they joined us to surf the bow wave.

The highlights of the trip were two snorkeling excursions. First, a night snorkel with Reef Manta Rays (Mobula alfredi). The organizers set up surfboard with lights, which attracted plankton; the plankton attracted the rays, which did repeated somersaults just underneath us—literally less than a foot away. This picture is a screen capture:

But I hope you will able to see the video:

Later we did a day snorkel on Lahaina with Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas). There were quite a few people in the water (as you will see in the video), but they just ignored us, coming up to the surface for a breath, then heading back down.


We’d arrived on the big island of Hawai’I while one of the volcanos, Mauna Loa, was undergoing an eruption (note, this is not the volcano with all of the telescopes on it—that’s Mauna Kea). We only saw lava distantly from the plane on the way in, but the ash in the sky gave us some beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Robert didn’t ask me to put this up, but I couldn’t resist.  He sent it while on the trip, with the remark, “Richard had a slide in one of his talks comparing embryonic development to origami, which was why he pulled me in as a visual aid when that slide came up. That was, of course, great fun.  Charming fellow, I gather he’s done some biological something-or-other in his day.”

Finally, since Mauna Loa is having one of its rare eruptions on the Big Island, I asked Robert if he saw it directly. He responded:

We did see the eruption from afar, from the plane while flying in. (Pic below.) One of the days we drove up to within a mile of the flow, but it was fogged in so we couldn’t see anything.
What a great gig for Richard! I’m jealous.

Travels: Davis, California

October 30, 2022 • 10:30 am

I’m staying with a friend in Davis, California, located in California’s great Central Valley, the great agricultural belt of the state. The town not big (10 square miles) nor populous (about 67,000 inhabitants), but it’s the site of the University of California’s biggest “ag school”: UC Davis, and it’s where I did my postdoc in genetics for three years. (Technically, the school is not within the city of Davis.)

Here’s where the city is, about 15 miles from Sacramento to the east and about an hour’s drive from Berkeley to the southwest.

As it was Saturday yesterday, one of the city’s highlights was open for business: the Davis Farmer’s Market. It’s open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and sells locally grown produce and products made by local artisans and farmers. It’s acquired a roof since I lived here, but the stands are not under it: a protection against covid.

Locally grown Oriental persimmons. I prefer the wild American persimmons, but you need to find a tree and gather the fruit only after it’s fallen and before it rots. Wild persimmions make one of the best puddings I’ve ever eaten.

Davis is an organic, crunchy-granola kind of town, so you’ll find stuff like this there:

And avocado toast, of course:

Anti-war people, though I’m not sure which war they were protesting:

Local peppers:

. . . and homemade cider (best taken home and left to start fermenting):

The sign says, “Do not enter: sensitive habitat area”, probably to keep people from trampling around the oak tree. But people were ignoring the sign!

And, at the end of the market, we found a genuine booth pushing FLAT EARTH THEORY. At first my friend Phil thought it was a joke, but the two nice girls at the adjacent Episcopal Church booth assured us sotto voce that it was for real.

And it was, manned by three loons who knew all the arguments for a flat earth and would argue with all comers. I could not resist!

Their theory is of course that the earth is a disk (this comes from the Bible) and that the ENTIRE PLANET’S GOVERNMENTS are in a giant conspiracy to delude the inhabitants that they’re living on a globe instead of a Frisbee. When I asked them why every photo taken from space shows the earth to be round, implying a sphere, they said this was part of a conspiracy and asked me knowingly, “Why do you suppose they call all those pictures ‘images’ instead of ‘photographs’?” They had two pictures of the earth from space showing the continents with different relative sizes, also proving a conspiracy.

Finally I asked one of them the question I really wanted to pose: “What one observation would change your mind and make you conclude that the Earth is actually spherical?” He started gabbling and I pulled him up short and said, “Please answer in one sentence, as I ask my students to do with scientific issues.” In the end, he truly didn’t understand the question, and didn’t answer me. (I could have answered what would change my mind: photos from space showing that the Earth was, from some angles, a disk.)

These people are exactly like creationists, except that the conspiracy to hide the “truth” is enacted by governments instead of atheistic scientists. In both cases their crazy ideas come straight from interpretating of the Bible.

Artworks are scattered all over town, like this Day of the Dead bench by a bus stop.

The epicenter of hippie-dom in Davis is the Food Coop, which sells stuff that is good for you (with some exceptions). In front of it are sculptures of a giant carrot and a giant tomato. Here I am hugging the big carrot (photo by Phil Ward):

And the giant tomato:

The caption: “Portrait of a plump tomato. Artist: Gerald Heffernon. Funding: City of Davis Civics Art Commission, Davis Food Coop. July 11, 2000.” The agricultural land around Davis is largely dedicated to growing and processing tomatoes, and there’s a giant ketchup and tomato-processing plant north of town. In the summer you can smell the processed tomatoes, and some of the roads are slippery with tomatoes that have fallen off the trucks taking them to the factory.

Inside the Coop. Here they explicitly accept the gender binary: there is no “other” section. But I was too timorous to point out to them that they need a “nonbinary” section.

They sell only sustainable seafood, which is good:

And a variety of non-cow milk:

SUGAR, long demonized in Davis. The waiter wouldn’t serve it to my father (on a family visit) when he asked for it with his coffee in a local organic cafe, now closed. They told him in response, “We don’t carry the White Death”, (seriously!), but added that  “we might be able to find some honey in the kitchen. My father demurred.

Note the product number given to white sugar! I do not think this is an accident (the rectangle is mine):

Like all “good for you” grocery stores, like Whole Foods, they sell useless homeopathic remedies, which I suppose are considered “organic” even though they’re useless and fraudulent:

Homeopathic crap:

More homeopathic crap. Were I a member, I would question them about why they carry this stuff, but it would be useless.

As we left, we noticed that the local animal shelter was giving away FREE KITTENS, and there were many of them on offer, like this adorable gray tabby.  I wanted to take them all, but couldn’t take any. Some people were adopting them, though, which made me happy.

I asked this woman if she was going to adopt this ginger kitten, and, sadly, she said no.


Travels: Cambridge, part 2

October 12, 2022 • 9:15 am

It’s been a quiet rest in Cambridge, and I haven’t been overly ambitious because the persistent insomnia produces a near-constant fatigue. Nevertheless, I haven’t been quiescent, either. Here are a few photos from the last two days in Cambridge and the Boston area.

First, you may have forgotten Jack the Cat, staffed by the daughter of my hosts. Jack and staff live in Jamaica Plain, right outside Boston. In September of last year, Jack fell three stories from a porch and landed on a cement driveway, severely injuring himself. I wrote a several posts about it at the time (see link above), documenting Jack’s care at the famous animal hospital Angell Memorial Medical Center.  Jack was badly injured; as I wrote at the time:

He can move and even walk a bit to his litter box on his injured paw, but most of the time, senses dulled by painkillers, he lies on his blanket. His paw is all bandaged and pinned, and the three buttons around his mouth are to keep it stitched shut until his shattered mandible heals (he can open his mouth 1 cm to eat). He’s also wearing the Cone of Shame:

He had a fracture of the second and third metacarpal bones, a fourth and fifth left carpometacarpal joint luxation, as well as the mandibular fractures, a collapsed lung, and contusions on the lung (those have largely healed). He’ll be laid up for six weeks, minimum, but in the end he should be all right, although perhaps without the mobility he used to have.

It was touch and go for a while. Here’s Jack soon after the accident, paw all pinned together and with buttons holding his jaw shut so it could heal. He was one sad moggy!

Yesterday we visited Jack and his staff and I was delighted to see that he’s completely healed, without even a trace of a limp. He was just a normal tuxedo cat, jumping about, chasing a laser pointer, and soliciting scritches on the chin:

A bracing walk around nearby Jamaica Pond, a kettle lake indicating the retreat of glaciers.

kettle (also known as a kettle lakekettle hole, or pothole) is a depression/hole in an outwash plain formed by retreating glaciers or draining floodwaters. The kettles are formed as a result of blocks of dead ice left behind by retreating glaciers, which become surrounded by sediment deposited by meltwater streams as there is increased friction.[1] The ice becomes buried in the sediment and when the ice melts, a depression is left called a kettle hole, creating a dimpled appearance on the outwash plain. Lakes often fill these kettles; these are called kettle hole lakes.

Click to enlarge the panorama:

There were mallards! (I do miss my ducks.)

And what I think are cormorants festooning a boat in the pond. I’m not sure of the ID, however, so readers are welcome to tell us what they are:

The Pond, and Jamaica Plain in general, is studded with gorgeous houses. Here are two:

After a homecooked meal (unfortunately not photographed), we hied ourselves to the best ice cream emporium in Cambridge, and perhaps in the world (I haven’t tried them all): Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream in Inman Square in Cambridge. The flavors are many, all are made with the finest ingredients, and there are some exotic choices:

Here were the choices last night (click to enlarge):

Although the “burnt sugar” flavor is, I maintain, the finest flavor of ice cream in the world, I always get it when I’m there, and so this time chose two new flavors: “khulfi”, an Indian ice cream with cardamom flavoring, and carrot cake, a splendid flavor that tasted just like its namesake, complete with raisins and a ribbon of cream cheese as frosting. My two scoops (carrot cake on the right):

And two children’s appreciation for the place. If you are ever in Cambridge, you must not miss Christina’s, and get the burnt sugar flavor. Tell them that Jerry sent you (they won’t know who I am):

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 1, 2022 • 8:00 am

Here’s documentation of a trip to Scotland taken by Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. His captions are indented and you can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

This is the spot at St. Andrews University where 24 year-old Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake. A trip to Germany did no good for young Patrick’s health: impressed by Martin Luther, he began teaching Lutheran doctrines on his return to St. Andrews. He was arrested, found guilty of heresy and executed in 1528, thus becoming the first victim of the Scottish Reformation.

Sci-fi/horror writer Marc Laidlaw suggested the start of a fiction book would be made much more interesting by adding ‘and then the murders began’:

* In real life, ‘and then the murders began’ happened with a vengeance after Augustinian friar Martin Luther hammered his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517 (literally or not; the actual hammering probably never happened). The Reformation unleashed bloodletting in a scale to make Genghis Khan envious. The Thirty Years War alone (1618-1648) devastated central Europe—Germany in particular—with unimaginable episodes of cruelty and suffering.

‘One sunny Sunday, the caterpillar was hatched out of a tiny egg. He was very hungry. And then the murders began.’ The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle;

‘Mr & Mrs Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. And then the murders began.’ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling;

‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And then the murders began.’ The Bible, by several authors;

‘It was the best of times, it was at the worst of times. And then the murders began.’ A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens;

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. And then the murders began.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell.

Statue of Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721) in Lower Largo, his birthplace. A sailor, Selkirk was marooned for four years and four months on the Más a Tierra island of the Juan Fernández archipelago, about 670 km off the coast of Chile. Selkirk’s adventure inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719 and one of the most popular books in history. Chile’s decision to rename Más a Tierra ‘Robinson Crusoe Island’ to boost tourism is understandable, as few people ever heard of Alexander Selkirk (who was an unpleasant and violent person, by some accounts). Selkirk’s Island, by Diana Souhami, is a good read about the man and his island:

On the road to Fort William, in the Highlands. ‘There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter’ (Billy Connolly, Glaswegian comedian).

Stress-free shopping:

Statue of Bamse at Montrose Harbour. The St. Bernard was a mascot of the Free Norwegian Forces stationed in Scotland during the Second World War, and supposedly the leading character of many acts of heroism. The Norwegian flag must have come from the crew of the two colossal Norwegian tug/supply vessels in the background.

Remnants of Dunkeld Cathedral, built between 1260 and 1501. In the newer, undamaged building, there’s a copy of the Great She Bible. This is one of a handful of the King James bibles, printed in 1611, in which a ‘she’ (Ruth) instead of a ‘he’ (Ruth’s hubbie Boaz) goes to town (Book of Ruth). This single word discrepancy makes a copy of a Great She Bible worth over £25,000. The cathedral was seriously damaged in 1560 for the crime of popery and destroyed by fire in 1689 during the Jacobite rising – one of the many chapters of Catholic-Protestant mutual bashing. Nowadays overt Scottish Jacobitism and reactions to it are mostly restricted to Orange parades and Old Firm (Celtic vs Rangers) football matches. Exchanges of unpleasantries – and occasional missiles – and lots of policemen are fixtures during these events.

Statue of James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) in Edinburgh’s George Street. ‘Maxwell’s equations’ alone placed the scientist shoulder to shoulder with Newton and Einstein: “From a long view of the history of mankind, seen from, say, ten thousand years from now, there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.” (Richard Feynman). Maxwell also worked on optics, kinetics, thermodynamics, bridge structures, theories of Saturn’s rings, and colour vision: he produced the world’s first colour photography. He could have done a bit more had he not died at the age of 48. Maxwell is one the greatest scientists ever, and an Edinburgh native to boot, but his statue was not unveiled until 2008. A monument to a dog, Greyfriars Bobby, was erected in 1873 and is far better known by tourists. 

In the middle of a field, that’s where.

Blooming in our garden.

House of D’Arcy Thompson (1860-1948) in St. Andrews. Possibly no other natural selection sceptic was so influential in the biological sciences. His On Growth and Form is an inspiring work of beauty and scholarship, revered by biologists, mathematicians and architects alike. The abridged edition, edited by John Tyler Bonner, would make an excellent gift for a discerning friend. The illustrations alone are worth the purchase:

It’s hard to beat the Mormons on the Religious Weirdness Scale; nonetheless, there are about 20,000 of them in Scotland. Tagged, tie-donning, young, clean-shaven missionary duos roam the country, apparently ineffectively: LDS numbers are going down in the UK:


Red and white flowers on this Perth cherry tree – possibly the result of grafting.

The traveling cannon – The Portuguese Cannon on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, cast in the early 15th century, was taken by the Spanish (who ruled Portugal between 1580 and 1640) to service in the Indies – Goa, Malacca and Southeast Asia – in around 1785. Somehow it was transferred to the Kingdom of Arakan (today’s Burma). According to a Burmese inscription on the barrel, the cannon was moved to Mandalay, the old capital. The British invaded Mandalay in 1885 and took the canon to Edinburgh in 1886. It survived the fate of the other five cannons that once sat on Calton Hill: they were melted down in 1940 as sources of metal during the war:

A detail from Voyages and travels to Brasil, by Johannes Nieuhoff (1618-1672), published in 1640. This is one the many rarities at Innerpeffray Library, the first public lending library in Scotland (1680). Understandably you can no longer borrow the precious books, but you are allowed to consult them. This literary gem (6 km from Crieff) deserves to be better known:

[JAC: note that the armadillo is called a “Shield hog”.]

A pleasant side of Edinburgh: the floral clock in West Prince’s Street Garden. Every coloured bit is a living plant: it takes about five weeks for two gardeners to plant and trim the specimens into shape. The clock, by the way, works accurately.

A not-so-pleasant side of Edinburgh: this is the impression of the city that thousands of visitors to this year’s Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, will take home. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) has money for another independence referendum, which most Scots don’t want, and for seven overseas ’embassies’ – price tag: ~6 million pounds/year – but not enough for local councils, so their workers went on strike. Education, transport and health indicators are plummeting, deaths by alcohol and drug use are on the rise (the drug death rate in Scotland is already the highest in Europe). And yet, the SNP has been in power for 15 years. For slightly less than half of the population, the lure of independence trumps everything else:

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 18, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have photos of extended phenotypes of a primate, H. sapiens. These photos of bridges were taken by James Blilie, whose notes are indented. Click the photos to enlarge them.

Again, sticking with the theme theme, these are a set of photos I have taken of bridges.

Many Rivers to Cross.

Most of these are from my travels of 1990-1992.

First is the Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol, Somerset, crossing the gorge of the River Avon.  I find this one of the most spectacular bridges and sites in the world. Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1992.

Next, also in the UK:  The Menai Straight Suspension Bridge.  This is a view looking up the linked chain suspension “cables”.  We crossed from mainland Wales to Anglesey on our bicycles, heading for Holyhead and the ferry to Ireland.  Designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1826.  Bold engineers and builders!  Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1992.

Next—going way back in time:  The Pont du Gard, which the Romans built to cross the Gardon River in their Province (Provence).  I love the architecture of the Roman structures.
And:  They built to last! Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1997.

Sticking with the Romans, this the Roman bridge over the Ouvèze River, also in Provence, at the Roman town of Vaison-la-Romaine, a beautiful spot.  Pentax K-X digital image, 2010.

Next is the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, crossing the Arno River.  I loved Florence and all of Tuscany. In Italy, we adopted the Italian schedule:  Go out in the morning and see something, back to the Pensione for a cold lunch and a siesta, then back out to see something, dinner, and the evening passegiatta around town, with the rest of the town.  Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1999.

Sticking with the bridge as building theme for a moment:  Château de Chenonceau, crossing the River Cher, one of the many beautiful chateaux of the greater Loire Valley region. Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1992.

Another from France:  The bridge at Gien, crossing the Loire River. Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1992.

One more from France.  This is the Passerelle Leopold-Sedar-Senghor foot bridge over the Seine in Paris, near the Musée d’Orsay, which can be seen in the background. I love the lines of this bridge.  Pentax *ist camera, digital image, 2010.  It seemed to me in 2010 that I had not seen it previously and I see in Wikipedia that it was completed in 1999.

Next, we go much further afield to Nepal, which, due to its rugged terrain and many rivers, as a lot of bridges.  This one crosses the Marshyangdi River, near the start of the Annapurna Circuit trail.  I am 6’-5” inches tall and weigh quite a bit – much larger than the Nepalese.  I did not enjoy being, as I said it the, the bridge tester for the Nepalese highway department!  You can’t see it in this shot; but the Marshyangdi River is a raging torrent under the bridge.  We were there during the monsoon; but the Annapurna Circuit was still spectacular.  Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1991.

Finally in Nepal, here’s what happens when the bridge fails.  This bridge, over a small tributary of the Marshyangdi River, leading to the Thorung La mountain pass*, failed earlier in the year we were there.  This necessitated camping near the bridge site and getting up before dawn to ford the stream at its lowest water level.  The water level rose dramatically through the day due to snow melt.  (* The highest elevation I’ve been to:  17,769 ft (5416 m).) Scanned Kodachrome 64, 1991.

The last shot is back in Europe:  One of the many suspension bridges on the west coast of Sweden. There were so many, I don’t know which one this is.  Taken from our car as we crossed the bridge. Digital image:  Canon Powershot SD1100, 2012.

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 20, 2022 • 8:00 am

Reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior has a two-part photo series on Crete, an island I’ve visited twice and where I lived for a month (in the then tiny-village of Sitia) in 1972.  I have to say that Crete was fairly untouristed then—three of us rented a house in the small fishing village of Sitia for $30 total for the month—but when I went back some years later, they had built a “Club Med” type resort in Sitia, and the entire northern shore of this gorgeous island has become touristy and commercial.  The South and the mountains, however, are said to still be lovely. (The southern coast of Crete was where Joni Mitchell lived in a cave in Matala with hippies, and her song “Carey” refers to that.)

But I digress. Here’s Athayde’s photos, taken this past June, with his captions indented. Part 2 will come another day. Don’t forget to click on the photos to enlarge them.

Fig 1. Chania (Χανιά), settled by the Minoans and taken by the Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and the Germans.

Fig. 2. Safe to pass? Crete was shaken by 301 earthquakes in the 30-day period leading to July 13, 2022. Most quakes are barely noticed, but a big one is always possible. Some archaeologists believe that a massive earthquake or volcanic eruption followed by a tsunami weakened the Minoan civilization, making them vulnerable to invading Mycenaeans from the mainland. The earthquake simulator in the Natural History Museum of Crete (Heraklion) gives you a scary and realistic idea of a magnitude 7 tremor – better than the one at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Fig. 3. Shelling peas during a chinwag in Chania’s old town. At the harbour, a few blocks from here, you would be swept away by the thick, slow current of tourists drifting along stalls, bars and restaurants. That is where you could pause to buy a “Game of Thrones” t-shirt or dine on a full English breakfast or a mayonnaise-spiked Greek salad.

Fig 4. Chania is surrounded by a wall built by the Byzantine rulers as a protection against invading Arabs. But destruction came from within, so to speak. Constantinople was sacked by their brother Christians during the Fourth Crusade (1204), and the Byzantine Empire crumbled. Crete was bestowed upon the Republic of Venice, who cracked down on Orthodox Christians. The Fourth Crusade put an end to the discussions about uniting the Eastern and Western Churches, and Orthodox Christians still hold a grudge. Pope John Paul II mumbled some words of regret about the Crusade, and the “apology” was accepted by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 2004.


Fig 5. Fragment of the winged lion of St. Mark the Evangelist at the Historical Museum of Crete, Heraklion. The winged lion is the emblem of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, or La Serenissima. Venice was one of the first capitalist super powers: independent, rich, efficient and ruthless. Crete remained under Venetian rule until the Ottomans threw them out in 1669.

Fig 6. The winged lion adorning a Trenitalia locomotive in Venice.

Fig. 7. This parchment is a decree of Sultan Mahmud II renewing privileges of the Church of Crete at the appointment of Patriarch Kallinikos III, 1823 (HMC). Nowadays the words ‘Islam’ and ‘tolerance’ don’t mix well, but things were different then. On conquering Crete, the Ottomans re-established the Orthodox Church, which had been marginalised by the Venetian rulers. And there was a time when Jews in the Ottoman Empire would pay higher taxes but otherwise be left alone; in Spain or Portugal, they could be burned alive.

Fig. 8. Agios Nikolaos (St Nicholas) church in Chania. Built in 1320, turned into a mosque by invading Turks in 1645, back to a church in 1918 after the Turks were expelled in 1898. Greece and Turkey’s current dispute over the ownership of some puny islands in the Aegean Sea is just the last chapter of a long history of squabbling, with many nasty, harrowing episodes. All may have started with a celebrity scandal: lecherous Paris eloping with beautiful Helen. Paris was the Trojan king’s son (Troy is in today’s Turkey), and Helen was the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta: no good could come out of it, as Homer reported to us.

Fig. 9. You talkin’ to me?

Fig. 10. Enosis (union) or tanatos (death). Flag displayed in the Chania home (today a museum) of Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), considered the father of modern Greece. Enosis was the movement of Greek communities outside Greece to unite with the Greek state. It helped the absorption of Crete and the formation of modern Greece, but also led to terrible episodes such as the destruction of Smyrna and the Cypriot revolt, still unresolved.

Fig. 11. Maleme airfield. In 1941, the Germans invaded Crete with paratroopers and gliders. But it all went spectacularly wrong; Allied troops and civilians wiped out the elite of the German paratroopers. Then, a cockup of gargantuan proportions, which has yet to be explained: the Allied forces withdrew from the airfield, allowing the Germans to send reinforcements and occupy the whole island.

Fig. 12. Some of the graves of 4,468 German soldiers buried at the Maleme war cemetery (two bodies/grave), who were killed during the invasion and occupation of Crete (1941-1945). In an ironic historical twist, for many years the German cemetery was cared for by George Psychoundakis (1920-2006), a member of the Cretan resistance. Psychoundakis was a remarkable man: he served as a runner for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under the supervision of Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), a name familiar to many Britons. Psychoundakis received a rudimentary education in a village school, and was a shepherd until the outbreak of the war. He ended up translating the Iliad and Odyssey from ancient Greek into the Cretan dialect, and was honoured by the Academy of Athens.

A note from Jerry. When my significant other and I visited in 1972, we often communicate with the older locals in German, as they spoke German they learned during the German occupation. (I’m somewhat fluent in German and can make my way in restaurants and transportation in Greek, but German is easy for me.) The interesting thing is that the older Greeks would only speak German to me when they ascertained that I was American and not German. They wouldn’t speak German to Germans, for they still despised them after what the Nazis did to Crete and the Cretans during WWII.


February 21, 2022 • 9:00 am

I’ll be going to Antarctica and the Falklands next Sunday, and will be gone a bit more than four weeks. I suspect I’ll be busier with lecturing this time than I was two years ago, so I wanted to warn people in advance not to expect much posting during my absence. Last time I was there, it took forever to post, as internet in that area is—as you’ll understand—slow and dicey. To post photos, for example, I had to downsize each one to about 250kb, and it was time-consuming.

All I can say is that I’ll do my best to keep readers informed and also to send photos when I can.  Because of the email situation, I ask that you keep communications with me to a bare minimum, i.e., no wildlife photos. If you have important articles, send them, but please combine them into one email every week or so. As always, I’ll do my best.

This week’s postings will also be sparse as I have a gazillion things to do to prepare, for I’m doing another lecturing trip—this time to the Mediterranean—two weeks after I return. More on that later.

I wanted to put just one photo up of my last trip, but I got obsessed. Here’s why I wanted to go back so badly. (Click photos to enlarge.)

One of the world’s only three species of flightless duck!

On the way soon!

Readers’ wildlife photos

February 10, 2022 • 8:45 am

Please send in your photos, and if your handle is “Punky McPhee”, please resend me your recent batch of pictures, as I’ve somehow lost them. Oy!

Today we have a special batch of close-up photos from James Blilie, whose captions and info are indented. Click the photos to enlarge them.

Here are a group of my photos I will group under the theme “up-close”.

When I am out with my cameras, I try to keep my eyes down as well as up and notice the small details and textures of the landscape, not just the broad vistas and charismatic main characters of the scenes.  I have tried to eliminate from this set:  Anything that could be considered a portrait or conventional landscape and to concentrate on only the very small details and the shape or texture of the land.  These tell a story too.

It’s a challenge for me not to turn a detail into a (more conventional) landscape using a very wide angle lens, which I often favor.  In my 20s, my “walk-around” lens was a 20mm (on 35mm film).

Equipment:  Pentax SLR cameras, Pentax DLSR cameras, Olympus M4/3 cameras. Epson Perfection V500 scanner and its native SW; Lightroom 5 SW. Kodachrome 64 predominantly, some digital.

First up:  Rock strata, Glacier National Park, Montana.  And creek bed rocks. These image say Glacier to me:  The iconic blue and red rocks of the sheer mountains of this park. Kodachrome 64.  1990.

Frost on chain link fence, Shoreview Minnesota.  Pentax DLSR.  2013? I love the color banded bokeh in this, contrasting to the crisp frost.

Detail from a door in Stavkirke, Norway.  Pentax DLSR.  2012.

Detail, Post Alley, Seattle, Washington.  The famous gum wall.  Olympus M4/3.  2016.

800-year-old fingerprints, southern Utah.  Anasazi ruin.  I could see the fingerprints in these finger impressions in the mud of these walls.  (Take nothing but photographs; leave nothing but footprints, and as little of those as possible.)  Kodachrome 64.  2001.

With your love of cats in mind:  Cat footprints in concrete, Hemingway House, Key West, Florida.  Olympus M4/3.  2019:

Wall detail, Seguret, Vaucluse, France.  Pentax DLSR.  2010.

Rubber tree, Malaysia.  Kodachrome 64.  1991.

The next two are from Nepal.  Footprints on the trail, and barley drying on homespun. Kodachrome 64.  1991.

Stone wall detail, Loire Valley, France. Kodachrome 64.  1992.

The rocky surface of The Burren, County Claire, Ireland, near Galway.Kodachrome 64.  1992:

Finally, I can’t further resist a couple of food and drink shots.  Picnic in the Haute-Savoie below Mont Blanc:  Local bread, sausage and Tommes de Sallanches cheese on an olive wood cutting board from Provence.  The Haute-Savoie is one of the most scenic places in the world. Fantastic beer, by the way.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 22, 2022 • 9:30 am

Richard Dawkins and Robyn Blumner (CEO and President of CFI and of the Dawkins Foundation) were in Dubai this past week, and both sent photos. I don’t have many captions, but these show you the intricate topiary and some of the food. (Photos by both RD and RB.)

A topiary plane!

Camel meat for dinner. Robyn said it “tastes a lot like beef but drier and chewier.” Sounds like beef jerky to me.


Some pictures of the flamingos in Dubai at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary:

My book at the mall in Dubai. Robyn said that they didn’t carry Faith Versus Fact, but that was no surprise to me.